Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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Is Climate Change Pushing Pests into Northern Farms?

| Sun Sep. 1, 2013 12:00 PM EDT

Pine beetles like this aren't the only pests driven north by climate change.

In 1996 Colorado received a very unwelcome—and hungry—house guest, the mountain pine beetle, whose voracious appetite for pine has since killed off millions of acres of trees there. A few years later, the beetles came knocking in British Columbia and have now knocked out over half the province's pine timber. The full-bore invasion of these critters, each no bigger than a grain of rice, is now one of the most pressing ecological disasters in the West, and their spread, scientists believe, is driven by climate change.

The beetles aren't alone: Rising equatorial temperatures have pushed a menagerie of pests north at an alarming rate of nearly 10,000 feet every year since 1960, according to a new survey out today in Nature. Researchers led by biologist Dan Bebber at the UK's University of Exeter combed through databases hosted by the non-profit CABI, which aggregates scientific and trade literature on agriculture, for the first documented appearance of over 600 kinds of pests (including insects, fungi, viruses, and bacteria), over a 50-year period in the Northern Hemisphere. They found, averaged across 14 taxonomic groups, a distinctive northward migration, wherein species first noticed at southern latitudes were, at a later date, discovered anew at northern latitudes. 

The chart below, from the paper, shows the distribution range of the different pest groups Bebber examined, with the vertical axis indicating distance from the equator (positive distances indicate north; negative distances indicate south) and the horizontal axis indicating time, from 1960 to the present. Overall, the groups show a gradual northward migration over time (up and to the right):

pest distribution chart
Bebber et al.

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7 Adorable Animals Imperiled by the Keystone Pipeline

| Tue Aug. 20, 2013 3:36 PM EDT
Species like the endangered least tern could find their lives disrupted by Keystone XL.

In its deliberations over the Keystone XL pipeline, the State Department is taking flak not just from picket-sign-wielding environmentalists, but also from within the ranks of the Obama administration. This spring the EPA slammed an environmental review as "insufficient" and called for major revisions. And yesterday, ThinkProgress uncovered a letter from the Interior Department, dated from April, that outlines the many and varied ways in which the pipeline could wreak havoc to plants and animals (not to mention dinosaurs) along its proposed route. 

The letter calls particular attention to a line in the State Department's most recent environmental impact assessment that claims "the majority of the potential effects to wildlife resources are indirect, short term or negligible, limited in geographic extent, and associated with the construction phase of the proposed Project only."

"This statement is inaccurate and should be revised," states the letter, which is signed by Interior's Director of Environmental Policy and Compliance Willie Taylor. "Given that the project includes not only constructing a pipeline but also related infrastructure…impacts to wildlife are not just related to project construction. Impacts to wildlife from this infrastructure will occur throughout the life of the project."

Which wildlife? The letter raises concerns that potential oil spills, drained water supplies, and bustling construction workers could cause a general disturbance, but identifies the critters below, some of which are endangered, for special attention:

Ross Goose
Ross' geese Wikimedia Commons

The Ross' goose depends on Nebraska's Rainwater basin, which the pipeline would pass through, as a key migratory stopover. A spill in the basin could "severely impact critical habitat," the letter says.

black-footed ferret
Black-footed ferret Wikimedia Commons

Although the letter praises State Department plans to protect these endangered ferrets, it nonetheless raises concerns about the potential for infectious diseases from domestic pets at construction camps and worksites in Montana and South Dakota to spread to this population of 1,000 or less left in the wild.

sandhill crane
Sandhill cranes Wikimedia Commons

Like the Ross' goose, the Sandhill crane depends on Nebraska's Rainwater basin, which, according to the letter, could be severely impacted by an oil spill.

least tern
Least terns Wikimedia Commons

Already endangered, least terns depend for nesting on plot of protected federal land just 40 miles downstream from where the pipeline will cross Nebraska's Niobrara River. Nests could fail, the letter warns, if construction activities cause fluctuations in the river's water level.

piping plover
Piping plover Jerry Goldner/Flickr

Also endangered, the piping plover depend on the same nesting site as the least tern and faces the same threats.

Sprague's pipit
Sprague's pipit Jerry Oldenettel/Flickr

In 2010 the Fish & Wildlife Service found the tiny Sprague's pipit qualified for endangered status, but hasn't yet been able to officially list it because of higher-priority species. But the pipit breeds in Montana's North Valley Grassland, which the pipeline would pass through, raising concerns about impact from a spill.

pallid sturgeon
Pallid sturgeons Wikimedia commons

While not exactly the cutest on this list, pallid sturgeons are also endangered; the letter raises concern that as water is withdrawn from the Platte River during the construction process, the fish and their eggs could suffocate. An assertion by the State Department that no plan is needed to mitigate damage to sturgeons, the letter says, "seems unsupported and requires further documentation."

Buried in Muck, Clues to Future NYC Drought

| Fri Aug. 9, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Climatologist Dorothy Peteet is combing through New York-area marshes for clues to future drought.

Piermont Marsh seems an unlikely place to learn about drought. This warren of narrow streams and muddy, reed-choked embankments clinging to the edge of the Hudson River twenty miles north of Times Square is the domain of crabs, worms, herons, and other water-loving creatures. But as Columbia University climatologist Dorothy Peteet paddles a narrow aluminum canoe deep into the marsh, she insists that buried deep in this black, sulphur-stinking muck are clues that could reveal when, and how badly, the nation's largest city will next be struck by crippling drought.

Here, she says, "we can get these climate records that we can't get anywhere else."

Some climate researchers tap ancient air bubbles trapped in Arctic ice to read long-lost atmospheres; some slice open stalagmites in tropical caves to measure 100,000-year-old rainfall. Peteet is on the hunt for pollen. She dredges up mud from as deep as 45 feet underground and hauls it back to her lab at the nearby Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. There she boils, bakes, and filters it to sift out pollen, not much thicker than a human hair, from plants several thousand years old. The relative abundance and variety of different species indicate climate conditions at the time the pollen was dropped: An uptick of dry-weather species like hickory and pine points to drought.

Dorothy with sample
Pollen, and seeds like these, could shed light on how future droughts will impact New York City. Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk

2012: A Year of Broken Climate Records

| Tue Aug. 6, 2013 2:49 PM EDT

2012 was the eighth or ninth warmest year on record, depending on which dataset you look at, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual State of the Climate report, released today. That is just one of many extreme statistics identified in the survey, which pulls together the most recent information from hundreds of researchers worldwide on everything from temperature to sea level to Arctic ice. Taken together, the report's authors say, the data paint an unmistakable picture of a warming planet.

"In 2012, certainly not every variable we looked at broke a record," Thomas Karl, the director of NOAA's climate data center, said. "I think what we've learned is one has to take a broad look at the climate system."

The heat map above, from the report, shows how 2012 temperatures compare to the average baseline of 1981-2010. While Alaska, parts of Asia, and elsewhere saw a cooler-than-average year, it was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States (and, relatedly, an insanely expensive year for natural disasters), and temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as fast as the rest of the world. In June, Arctic sea ice minimums reached record lows, and over a two-day period in July more of the Greenland ice sheet was melting at once—97 percent—than ever seen before.

Another landmark was sea level rise: 2012 saw the highest global sea levels ever recorded, the peak of a trend that has seen seas rising just above a tenth of an inch per year over the last two decades. Interestingly, in the last couple years, melting ice (the black line in the graph at right) accounts for twice as much sea level rise as does  thermal expansion of warming water (red line). And the sea wasn't just high, it was hot, too: Heat trapped in the top half-mile of the ocean remained near record highs. At the ocean surface, temperatures were among the 11 warmest on record, despite mostly flatlining since 2000 partly as a result of La Niña conditions that cool the sea.

Carbon emissions for the year were also their highest ever: In 2012, the world released roughly 9.7 quadrillion grams of carbon into the atmosphere, about one-tenth the weight of every living thing on Earth, pushing the atmospheric concentration higher, at least in some places, than at any time in human history. Other key greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, also climbed from the previous year. 

Sadly, all these shocking numbers weren't much of a shocker to the report's 384 authors from around the globe, NOAA's Karl said; they merely offer the latest bundle of proof that climate change is happening: "We see ongoing trends continuing."

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